Can Layperson Prepare The Altar Before Consecration?

Can laypeople prepare the altar for consecration of the Eucharist?

I’m not speaking of altar servers, but a scenario where parishioners bring forward the gifts and then set-up the altar before the priest begins the consecration. Similar to what a deacon would do.


Interesting question. I would like to know the answer, too. I saw this done in a parish in the diocese of Sacramento a few years ago when we were visiting there. Before the Offertory lay people came up and put what looked like a table cloth on the altar. It looked really strange to me.

Altar servers are generally lay persons. Altar servers are permitted to set up the altar during the preparation of the gifts.

(Lay people cannot prepare the chalice by pouring the wine and water into it, however. That is reserved to an ordained man (i.e., a deacon or priest).)

From my understanding this is certainly highly irregular and should be taken up with the Pastor as it is not in keeping with the intent of the USCCB Liturgical Participation and the roles of the people therein…

The GENERAL INSTRUCTION OF THE ROMAN MISSAL (Vatican Website) doesn’t apear to allow this either (ibid 139 - 143)

I would really like one of the Priests here at to answer this this question

From the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), for “Mass With a Deacon”:

“178. After the Universal Prayer, while the Priest remains at the chair, the Deacon prepares the altar, assisted by the acolyte, but it is the Deacon’s place to take care of the sacred vessels himself.”

For “Mass Without a Deacon” the GIRM has:

“139. When the Universal Prayer is over, all sit, and the Offertory Chant begins (cf. no. 74).
An acolyte or other lay minister places the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the Missal on the altar.”

Post #1 has: “I’m not speaking of altar servers, but a scenario where parishioners bring forward the gifts and then set-up the altar before the priest begins the consecration.”

Well, it seems they are doing part of the role of altar servers.

A clearly incorrect practice I often see, is the Priest setting up the altar, instead of a lay minister. Another incorrect practice is putting the corporal on the altar before the beginning of Mass.

Setting up the altar by those bringing forward the gifts is an improvement on this. If the parish priest believes he lacks parishioners with the enthusiasm to be altar servers, then I can understand him taking this approach.

If there were a Deacon, first he would set up the altar, while Priest is at the chair. Then the Priest would accept the gifts from the offertory procession, assisted by the Deacon. (GIRM 178). So, it would be better if the lay people set up the altar before the gifts were brought forward, not after the offertory procession.

When I was an altar server, I would always be instructed to lay the altar before consecration. And then the priest would always rearrange everything before we continued. I once tried to arrange things the way he normally liked them, and it threw him off so much that I just gave up and kept arranging them the way I normally did. :shrug:

There are 2 issues here.

  1. The role of bringing forward the gifts (ie the bread and wine) should be done by someone in the congregation, not by an acolyte/server, whose role instead is to carry the candles at this time. It’s not appropriate to mix these roles; while at the same time it isn’t strictly speaking forbidden. This would be similar to a situation where there is no one to proclaim the readings (I mean the OT/Epistle and Psalm) and someone from the congregation (ie “the pews”) comes forward at that time. It isn’t something that should be planned, or done intentionally. Again, it’s not strictly forbidden but instead it “should not” be done.
    The deacon or priest must receive the offerings, (GIRM 73), so if that isn’t happening, it not only “should” but “must.”

The more serious problem in the OPs scenario is that the parts of the Mass are being done in reverse order. The altar is prepared (corporal, missal, etc) FIRST and the bread/wine are brought forward and received by the deacon/priest SECOND—that’s what’s required. According to the OPs description, these are being done in the wrong order. That’s the more serious issue. I’ll add GIRM 73 to the end here.

  1. The priest himself must be the one to actually place the bread and wine on the altar. The distinction here is “on” the altar, rather than “to” the altar. The priest must always be the one to actually place the offerings on the altar—more specifically onto the corporal, to the accompaniment of the prayer “Blessed are you Lord God of all Creation…” Even though the deacon might assist him, if for example, there is a large number of ciboria. The GIRM (at this point #178) seems to be written as if there is just a single paten; therefore the act of the deacon placing the additional ciboria onto the corporal is not described, but that has become the practical solution.
    The OP doesn’t tell us exactly what’s happening, but no matter what else takes place, the priest himself must always place the paten containing the principle host and the chalice containing the wine/water onto the corporal itself while he himself says “Blessed are you…”
    If the laity are actually placing the bread/wine onto the corporal, as opposed to bringing them “to” the altar, that’s certainly a problem.

73. At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist the gifts, which will become Christ’s Body and Blood, are brought to the altar.
First, the altar, the Lord’s table, which is the center of the whole Liturgy of the Eucharist, is prepared by placing on it the corporal, purificator, Missal, and chalice (unless the chalice is prepared at the credence table).
The offerings are then brought forward. It is praiseworthy for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at an appropriate place by the priest or the deacon and carried to the altar…

Fr. David, the situation that I was describing involved the altar being bare at the beginning of Mass, and then these women coming up and putting a table cloth on it before the offertory. I assume they were trying to accentuate the Mass as a meal, not as a sacrifice. I was under the impression that the altar was to be covered by an altar cloth for the start of Mass, and that the priest would unfold the corporal at the proper time. They did some other strange things at this Mass, too, but I am spoiled because in our Irish Augustinian church in Rome and in our home parish in the Diocese of Arlington, VA, they “say the black, and do the red.” Thank you Father, for taking the time to help us with our questions.

This is addressed in GIRM 117
The Articles to Be Prepared
117. The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.
Clearly, the altar must be covered with the altar cloth before the Mass begins. While other items (such as the missal, corporal and even candles) might be added later, there is nothing in the Missal permitting the altar cloth to be delayed until the offertory.

Thanks to everyone for responding, especially Fr. David.

I apologize if I did not describe the scenario clearly enough in the original post. I’ve not seen this myself and do not have the full details.

The scenario that was described to me involved a family “setting the table” / preparing the altar for consecration.

The parish does have a deacon and altar servers, but again, I do not know the details. I’ve just not seen this before and was curious about it.


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